Will Ashon: Unpacking the endless mysteries of Enter the Wu-Tang

Will Ashon: Unpacking the endless mysteries of Enter the Wu-Tang

Ahead of his appearance at Aye Write!, we chat to Ashon about his new book, Chamber Music: About the Wu-Tang (In 36 Pieces)

A raw blast of bone-clacking funk, street lyricism and esoteric imagery, the Wu-Tang Clan's debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) remains as potent today as it did upon its release in 1993. The album's febrile complexity is captured brilliantly in Will Ashon's Chamber Music: About the Wu-Tang (In 36 Pieces). Eschewing conventional album biography, Ashon explores the Staten Island rap crew's mythos through 36 discursive chapters. These range from detailed analyses of lyrical styles and production techniques, to histories of kung-fu cinema and the 1980s crack epidemic.

A former music journalist and erstwhile boss of the Big Dada label, Ashon applies a hip hop aesthetic to his writing. 'I make no claims for myself as a massively original thinker, so what I'm doing to some extent is collaging other people's ideas in a way that hopefully makes them feel fresh or new. And I thought, this is a bit like hip hop: you're taking samples, you're quoting, you're fitting them together to create something different.'

In his previous book, Strange Labyrinth, Ashon reckons with the 'outlaws, poets, mystics, murderers' of Epping Forest. He finds intriguing parallels between the ancient English woodland and Staten Island, noting that they're both on the peripheries of cities. A visit to New York's fifth borough confounded his expectations. 'You listen to the Wu-Tang and you image a gothic landscape of huge derelict tower-blocks and it's not like that at all. What surprised me is how suburban it is. It did remind me of Essex in a way, because it's working class made good. It's quite right wing, and walking around it's festooned in Stars and Stripes. It's a really odd place.'

Ashon loved the album when it came out and has been unpacking its endless mysteries ever since. 'Part of what originally fascinated me about it was going, "I don't know what's going on, I don't know where all this is coming from."' The Wu-Tang famously drew on the world of kung-fu movies to re-imagine themselves and their surroundings. Ashon confesses that he's not a huge fan of the genre, but is fascinated by its enduring influence on hip hop.

'What was it about those films that spoke so strongly to these kids? There's an argument that one of the reasons the African-American community embraced kung-fu movies was because they had non-white heroes.' Ashon expands on this, citing Joseph Schloss's thesis that hip hop is essentially a battle aesthetic, where rappers, DJs, b-boys and graffiti artists compete to be the best. 'Once you start to dig in, the link with kung-fu becomes really apparent.'

The album sees Wu-Tang mastermind RZA interweaving martial arts with the Islamic teachings of the 5% Nation, aching soul and cubist jazz. 'It's such a rich record in terms of its range of reference,' Ashon says. 'A lot of the things that you find in hip hop generally are brought to the forefront in the Wu-Tang's work because they're so self-consciously using these elements to build a mythology.'

Mitchell Theatre, Glasgow, Sat 16 March, 6.30pm.

Aye Write! Glasgow's Book Festival

A festival celebrating Scottish and international writers and writing.